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Australian families deserve better than Labor’s school reform failures

Education and Employment References Committee, Final report, School classroom disruption

I rise to welcome the tabling of the final report by the Senate Education and Employment References Committee on increasing disruption in Australian schools. Chaired most capably by Senator O’Sullivan, this very important inquiry has offered critical insights into how spiralling behaviour in and out of the classroom is impacting on the learning outcomes of Australian students.

Unruly, disruptive and even violent behaviour is seriously impacting on the ability of teachers to do their job and is a leading cause of teachers leaving the profession in droves. With some of the unruliest classrooms in the world, it’s no wonder academic standards are declining. Despite a 60 per cent increase in school funding over two decades, we are seeing that trajectory of declining school standards, with one in three Australian students failing NAPLAN, and, as we’ve heard from Senator O’Sullivan, a long-term decline in our international results.

Students deserve better, teachers deserve better and Australian parents deserve better.

So dire are our school standards, despite the best efforts of teachers—and I reiterate that—that half of all year 10 students tested under the Program for International Student Assessment failed to meet minimum expectations in maths, with 43 per cent failing to meet the grade in reading and 42 per cent in science. As Senator O’Sullivan said, the average 15-year-old is now one whole year behind in his or her learning compared to 20 years ago. That is a shocking outcome.

Students cannot learn in a disruptive environment, and hardworking teachers must have the training and the resources to excel in the classroom, including the resources and the training to manage poor classroom behaviour. On that score, teaching courses offered by Australian universities—not all, but on the whole—leave new teachers unprepared and lacking knowledge in evidence based teaching methods or the science of learning—so our universities must bear a big part of the blame. Here’s the irony: university academics training student teachers don’t need a teaching degree to do their job.

I strongly endorse the committee’s recommendation in its final report to hold an inquiry into declining academic standards, including examining students’ proficiency in literacy and numeracy and the experience of principals, teachers and parents in meeting the challenge of raising academic standards.

It is regrettable that, since the interim report was handed down late last year, we have seen so little action from this government and the education minister, Jason Clare, on the recommendations of the interim report. They include fast-tracking the delivery of core curriculum in every university teaching course, including comprehensive behaviour management training. Yes, the government recognises, like we did when we were last in government, that universities are not meeting the grade, but this minister is letting universities off the hook by giving them so much time to get their act together, so we need those reforms fast-tracked. We need, as was recommended, a national behaviour survey of Australian schools to support evidence based measures to combat classroom disruption; more on-the-job experience for student teachers; a behaviour curriculum which incorporates into the Australian curriculum the explicit instruction of expected behaviours at school; the adoption of evidence based teaching methods in every Australian school to support optimal student engagement and learning; and the abolition of open classrooms—which has been announced in New South Wales but not in any other state or territory—which make behaviour management more difficult.

The coalition is interested in these reforms—the things that work, the things that the evidence shows will turn around these declining school standards. Minister Clare has spent almost two years talking a very big game on the next National School Reform Agreement, but we have seen no national agreement and very little in the way of reform. Yes, it is true that there has been a ban on mobile phones in classrooms—I have to say, led by some of the states rather than the minister, but we welcome that very important change in classrooms—but we’ve not seen anything else that we know will work and that we know will give each young Australian every opportunity to reach his or her best potential. In fact, this minister was comprehensively rolled by the states and territories at the last education ministers meeting. Within 24 hours of making this big announcement, the so-called $3 billion for public schools—what a joke that was!—this hopeless minister was absolutely, comprehensively rolled when five states announced there was no deal at all, leaving uncertainty, division and a complete and utter funding shambles. It was absolutely clear that this minister had not done his homework. This minister had not done the hard yards with the states and territories to get them over the line. Australians need an education minister who is a tough operator, not a smooth talker.

Let’s not forget that on the minister’s watch, on the Albanese government’s watch, we now have a full-blown teacher shortage crisis with no immediate solutions from this government. We have seen no interest at all from this government in improving the national curriculum. The minister will not even mention the words ‘explicit instruction’, when we know from the evidence that explicit instruction is a core part of what will help to turn around our declining school standards.

Perhaps it’s because the Australian Education Union doesn’t agree with these teaching methods—incredible. In our cost-of-living inquiry, we heard the Australian Education Union again confirm on the record that it doesn’t subscribe to the evidence of what we know works in Australian classrooms. They don’t believe it. They think it’s dangerous, which is contrary even to the very good work of the Australian Education Research Organisation. That just goes to show how out of touch the Australian Education Union is. Frankly, there is no value at all in anyone listening to what this union has to say when it comes to doing what is right for young Australians.

As Senator O’Sullivan has reiterated, the coalition has been crying out for the government to take the necessary steps and make the necessary reforms to turn around our declining academic standards, including to mandate explicit instruction and other proven teaching methods in every Australian classroom. In saying that, I acknowledge that there are many schools and a number of school systems that are doing a very good job embracing evidence based teaching methods. One of the great visits that we had when I joined the inquiry’s Sydney hearings was to the Marsden Road Public School. We again met the wonderful principal, Manisha Gazula, and saw what she is doing in a highly disadvantaged area of Sydney. With no extra funding, she’s embracing evidence based teaching, and her NAPLAN results are going through the roof. What can be done when you have the vision and the determination and you embrace the science of learning is incredible.

I reiterate my endorsement for this very important recommendation in the final report that has been tabled today, and I say this hopelessly dishonest government needs to do better and this minister needs to do far better than he is doing at the moment.

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